Love God with all your heart

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30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: Oct. 23, 2011
Exod 22:20-26; Ps 18; 1 Thess 1:5-10; Matt 22:34-40

“Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” they ask Jesus. By a few centuries later, the rabbis would state in the Talmud that there were 613 commandments—both the negative prohibitions of what not to do and the positive commands of what to do. Which of these is the greatest? And Jesus’ answer is not just the top commandment out of 613, but that upon which the whole law and the prophets depend: the root, the organizing, pervading principle of them all.

And it is love.

It is love: not just a series of tasks to be fulfilled and sins to be avoided. It is love: not the Nirvana sought by Buddhism, an extinguishing of all turbulent desire into peace and nothingness; but rather love, which is flame, pure and intense, unextinguished, and practically guaranteeing that we will suffer when we love.

But how can love be commanded? How can it be fulfilled? How can we love God? What does that mean, anyway—that greatest and first commandment?

What it is not is commanding a feeling. That would be impossible. But, while love involves feelings, it is fundamentally an act of the will: to will the good of someone, and to seek to be together with that person. That is, to desire that someone’s true needs be met; that they should grow and reach the fulfillment of all that they are truly meant to be; that they should be and become, accomplish and receive, all that they were made to be: to desire this, to will it, to act to bring it about as far as we can.

And there are two sides to love that we need to consider here, as our Holy Father Pope Benedict wrote about 5 years ago in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, “God is Love.”

On the one hand, there is a kind of receiving love, in which we say that something is fulfilling something in us. In that way, I could say that I love pizza or ice cream, or that I love cycling or music: meaning that I perceive the goodness of this thing or activity; and especially that I recognize that possessing it or receiving it or engaging in it fulfills me. This receiving kind of love in Greek is called erōs. And we know that this kind of love is directed toward human beings as well: for when we find that someone fulfills some need in ourselves, we desire and choose to be with them, to receive from them these things that fulfill us. How many love songs are written about just this?

Can we love God with this erōs, this receiving kind of love that seeks to possess and be fulfilled? Absolutely! The Scriptures teach us that God made us in his own Image and Likeness—making us like him in our intellect and free will, in our creativity and personhood, in our capacity for love and for relationship. And making us so that he himself is our chief good, our fulfillment; so that we have a God-shaped hole inside us, a central need that only the infinite God can fill. And it is critically important that we recognize that no thing or possession, no activity or achievement, no human person, will ever be able to completely fulfill us; but only knowing God and being united with him. And so we must seek him, seek to receive what only he can give; and structure our lives around God, and not some lesser good; who alone can truly fulfill us; whom we must love, first and foremost, with this receiving kind of love.

But what about this other kind of love: this giving kind of love? That focuses upon another and desires their good—the fulfillment of their need and of their personhood—and, wherever possible, to give of ourselves to meet and supply that need? This giving kind of love is the Greek agapē. And perhaps we see it most easily in the love of a father or mother for their child; but also in romantic love, as it matures, and a man, for example, discovers not just how his beloved meets his needs but what her needs are and how he can supply those. This kind of love is very prominent throughout the New Testament, in the teaching of Christ and the apostles; and it is the word that Christ is using in the Gospel reading today, speaking of loving God and neighbor.

And surely we grasp how we can love our fellow human beings with a giving kind of love that wills their good, that desires to fulfill their needs. But what about loving God in this way? For God, in the divine nature, has no needs, no necessity; lacks nothing, is completely fulfilled. How then can we love God with a giving kind of love? The saints often focus upon Christ and his needs in his human nature: St. Teresa of Avila would picture him in his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, or while he was being scourged at the pillar; the Missionaries of Charity, beside every crucifix in their houses and chapels, place the words, “I thirst.” For what does Christ thirst? What does God want; what does he will?

To love God in this way is

  • to seek to know what he wills, and to will it ourselves; to desire that his will be done, and seek to bring it about, as far as we can, within ourselves and in others around us;
  • to seek to understand how he sees the world and every person in it, what he knows it to be, and to see and know the world that way ourselves, through the same eyes, the same mind;
  • to seek to shape ourselves both outwardly and inwardly, in our actions and our thoughts and even our most basic feelings, according to this will.

In this way, we will love the Lord, your God, with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. And we will love our neighbor, not as a replacement for God in our lives, but as he loves them.

But how is it possible to love God? How can we arrive at the place of being able to say, truly and comfortably, with the psalmist: “I love you, O Lord, my strength, O Lord, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer”? This love for God is enkindled in us as we come to know his love for us, his goodness to us. As St. John wrote in his first letter (4:19), “We love because he first loved us.” Our love is enkindled as we discover his love.

So let me close with the story of how I came to know God’s love for me more deeply. It was during my second summer as a seminarian, when I was out in Omaha for a special summer program (at the Institute for Priestly Formation), which began with an 8-day silent Ignatian retreat. Each day we were to pray four separate hours, and we had Scripture passages to reflect upon and special graces to ask for; and we also each met with a spiritual director each day. The first couple days we were to pray: “to be able to receive a new sense of your infinite love for me, Lord.” I reflected on this and I said to my spiritual director: “You know, I haven’t truly experienced God’s love for me. Sure, I know that he takes care of me and supplies what I need. But the same thing could be said of how a responsible human being takes care of a farm animal. Love goes further than that.” And he said that it was good that I recognized that, and that I should pray for it.

And so I did. And during those 8 days I received two very personal gifts. One was a consolation related to the death of my mother, a year and a half before. The other was simply the enlivening of this prayer relationship, this two-way communication, in a way that changed my view of my life and of the world, in a way that I had never thought possible. And I knew that these were gifts of love: wonderful, personal, beyond any necessary care, but rather truly lavish gifts of love. And so I could respond with love for him: with all my heart, with nothing held back.

There are many here who know exactly what I am talking about; and you live in this love. But there are some who do not. And you are present this morning out of some form of obligation, to learn some truth, to follow some moral goodness. As important as that is, it is nothing compared to that living relationship of love that our Lord Jesus Christ lived with his Heavenly Father and that he also wants to draw us into.

The late Fr. Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the Jesuits, once wrote: “Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way… Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

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